Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Digital listening - part 2

- Digital listening - part 2
Having converted some of the family to the pleasure of using a stand-alone device to play internet radio and local music files, the next step was expansion. Putting another device in an area that was not really suited to having a regular computer.
There were a few candidates that seemed to be offering something similar. They are some subtle and not so subtle differences between them (such as whether or an additional application needs to be installed, learned and run to handle core functionality, functionality of the remote control and support for many different formats/protocols for streaming - including the ability to play back material from the BBC Listen Again library).

I had seen a few at CES in 2004 and 2005 and had already been researching.

In general, I discounted devices that could not be controlled from the device (plus its remote control) itself (i.e. if it needed a TV to be on, or if the only way from from a computer).
My shortlist had come down to Sonos, Philips, RokuLabs and SlimDevices (now Logitech).

I decided that although it looked great, it was too expensive for me and did not seem open enough for what I had in mind. Sonos
However, I have subsequently recommended it for closer inspection to friends who had both more spare cash than me and less desire to get into the technicalities.

They seemed to have the only device that really was a conventional mini hi-fi system, with CD-player, regular radio and built-in speakers but it was taking forever to come to market in Europe. Philips MC-i200
When I tried it out at CES I found the menu system too cumbersome and unresponsive - plus the internet radio function seems to only support a "walled garden" approach with no ability for me to enter my own stream URLs, plus there was no support for Microsoft WMA which would have been needed for many internet radio stations. I'm sure that either I was wrong or things have improved since then, but since I could not get my hands on one to experiment with in the UK at that time - I gave it a miss.

I did like the fact that, like the Audiotron, it has a built in filesystem client so that it can play locally held music files without necessarily having to run an extra application.
RokuLabs M1000
However, it had no native support for RealAudio format - which meant that I would not have an easy way to listen to the BBC Listen Again material.
Running a connection through a local transcoding proxy could have been one way to do this - i.e. run a local server that can handle RealAudio format and have it translate the data, in real-time to something else. The loss in quality after going through such a translation could be grating, but given the relatively lo-fi that is used for most internet radio then I decided that this need not be a big issue - but I wanted to experiment.
Back then ... the RokuLabs devices included the ability to work with the then current SlimDevices SlimServer. SlimServer was (and still is - but is known as SqueezeCenter nowadays) free to download and use. So I decided to try it out since I would be able to evaluate the free software for use with either vendor.

SlimDevices (now Logitech)
As I read more about SlimDevices I was impressed with the approach they were taking.
The user forum was busy and supportive with active engagement by the manufacturer - it was clear that new functions were being added based on user requests. They seem to have put a lot of effort into the audio qualities of the box and had a good looking screen and menu system.
SlimDevices SB2 However, it did look like an old-fashioned bedside clock radio (the subsequent SB3 updated the looks, and the later Receiver plus Controller i.e. Duet goes a step further).

But, there was a free download available of a software-only emulation of the Squeezebox.
So - I downloaded the Slimserver and Softsqueeze. I had both up and running in minutes.
It was easy and extend. Softsqueeze allowed me to try out a lot of things, including putting some add-ins in place. It all worked really well.
So - I placed my order for the newly announced SB2 and it arrived direct from USA at the end of March 2005.
It proved so popular at home - that a 2nd followed not long afterwards. Sometimes we set them to synchonise playback so that we can set-up a playlist from the kitchen in the evening and then continue without a break when we eventually arrive in the bedroom.

So I had decided to go with something that seemed to have good basic functions and an active user community who were developing, with the support of the manufacturer, all sorts of interesting add-ons. I did not expect to use many of them (for example showing the scores for sports that I am not interested in) but there were some that looked promising (for example providing the BBC Listen Again content).
It could be argued that having something that seemed to require additional 3rd-party software to achieve what would lead to an overly complex solution and would need a computer to be left on to run it.
Well - I do not have a big concern over something being complex under the covers - provided there is sufficient information and support for those that are willing and able to dabble. If new functions can be added that can then seamlessly appear in the menu at the device so that everyone in the family can quickly understand how to use it if they need it then I'm all for it.
As for running a computer all of the time - although it is not strictly necessary to do this with the Squeezebox (SqueezeNetwork provides access to internet streams without need of a local server and the device also supports broadcasting a Wake-On-Lan packet to try to restart a slumbering server) ... I already run a PC all day so that it can easily generate the TV and radio listings that I upload for other users of DigiGuide (I generate programme schedule information for end-users to import into DigiGuide of over 100 stations - maybe that could be the subject of another blog entry).

Next steps
All of the manufactures featured above have released new models since I was doing my research - and there are other players in the market.
I still had an itch ... I wanted internet radio in the bathroom so that I could listen in while having a long soak. There were numerous possibilities - and apart from kicking myself for not putting some speakers in the ceiling when we had the bathroom refitted ... I was happy to start searching again. Slimdevices/Logitech were steadfastly not making any noise about producing a transportable device with built-in speakers. RokuLabs had finally shipped their SoundBridge Radio and there were other small devices that looked a bit like regular radios that could be interesting. More on this later ...

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Digital listening

- Digital listening

As DABDig, the application, has needed less of my attention over the last couple of years (partly because it already handles most of the recording possibilities with stacks of TV and radio kit - but mainly, I think, because there are much more sophisticated applications being shipped with modern computers that, for most people, obviate the desire to go and and find extra tooling such as DABDig plus the basic TV listings available in Microsoft Media Center and other similar applications mean that they are unlikely to find DigiGuide) I have spent some time getting involved with the technicalities behind internet radio - and indeed I even help run one.

I decided to post a few words about it here to see if it sparks any interest - and if it does, then I may well add more detail in the future.

How it started for me:
I have listened to radio via the internet for a long time - I don't remember when it started, but I suspect that extended hours of listening coincided with my first broadband connection at home back in 2002 (I was on the free trial being run by my cable TV company to provide broadband wirelessly, that ran for about 18 months I think - which sounds somewhat odd, but their old cable infrastructure in my area was not able to provide internet and I didn't want to have to add an extra line from a different telcoms company to get ADSL).
In January 2003 I released an update to DABDig to drive Total Recorder - so that it would be possible to schedule recording of internet radio streams from DigiGuide - because back then there was very little "Listen Again" or "On Demand" functionality on radio stations around the world.

Over the years I have had, and still have, various internet radio devices. In general, these look like regular radios or a hi-fi component (so get put in places that normal home PCs don't go - such as kitchen, dining room and bathroom) and are very easy to use for all of the family. I have taken an active technical interest in the technology and the communities built around them.
The first that I went for was the TurtleBeach Audiotron.
Sadly no longer available to buy new - but even now, some years after all support ended, it still stands up well against today's offerings.
This device can play audio files from your home computers or NAS but, via a facility called TurtleRadio, it could also play thousands of internet radio stations. This was playing most nights after we had the family dinner (music during dinner tended to be Jazz FM (when it was still just about a jazz station) or PlanetRock dependng on whose turn it was to control the DAB radio in the dining area).
After a few months of twiddling the dial to pick up different genres and countries from around the world - we ended up with a staple diet in the presets - FIP and FranceInter were always popular and remain so now, the world music station on RadioIO (RadioIO is still going but that station and compiler has long gone).

We were very happy with internet radio - and wanted (well I did anyway) to buy another one to put downstairs to augment or even replace the DAB receiver. TurtleBeach were rumoured to be making something new ... so I held off for many months to see what would arrive. In the end they announced the some updated models plus the MediaTron (same idea as the AudioTron) but could be controlled via a TV interface, including showing cover art. I was one of the few that managed to get my hands on one and have a play - on their booth at CES in Las Vegas in January 2004.

However, the device never made its way to the stores. Eventually TurtleBeach pulled the plug on the whole thing, not just the new models. So something else had to be done! I had already been researching a few other devices and had used the CES show in 2004 and 2005 to have a look at them in more detail (it was a happy co-incidence that I had to be in Las Vegas at the same time as CES for 2 years in a row).

So - what did I go for? More about that in the next blog posting.